Battle for Zendikar Limited Set Review – Red

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*Retired and inducted into the Limited Hall of Fame: Pack Rat. Umezawa’s Jitte.

5.0: The best of the best. (Citadel Siege. Wingmate Roc. Dragonlord Atarka.)
4.5: Incredible bomb, but not unbeatable. (Tragic Arrogance. Whirler Rogue. Icefall Regent. Hangarback Walker.)
4.0: Good rare or top-tier uncommon. (Abbot of Keral Keep. Jhessian Thief. Ultimate Price.)
3.5: Top-tier common or solid uncommon. (Separatist Voidmage. Fiery Impulse. Epic Confrontation.)
3.0: Good playable that basically always makes the cut. (Deadbridge Shaman. Skyraker Giant. Watercourser.)
2.5: Solid playable that rarely gets cut. (Read the Bones. Silumgar Butcher. Dragon-Scarred Bear.)
2.0: Good filler, but sometimes gets cut. (Throwing Knife. Chandra’s Fury. Artful Maneuver.)
1.5: Filler. Gets cut about half the time. (Vastwood Gorger. Aeronaut Tinkerer. Cobblebrute.)
1.0: Bad filler. Gets cut most of the time. (Thornbow Archer. Deep-Sea Terror. Akroan Jailer.)
0.5: Very low-end playables and sideboard material. (Vandalize. Vine Snare. Congregate.)
0.0: Completely unplayable. (Fascination. Infinite Obliteration.)

First, a quick note on 5.0s: I am slightly relaxing what I consider a 5, as reserving it for just the top cards ever in Limited isn’t as useful. Yes, Umezawa’s Jitte and Pack Rat are on another level, but cards like Citadel Siege or Atarka should make the list as well. You are going to see more cards get the highest grade, even though I’m not going so far as to say that the best card in a set automatically gets it. It’s possible for the best card to still not quite get there.

Akoum Firebird

Limited: 4.0

Red starts things off with a hot one. Akoum Firebird would be quite appealing without the landfall trigger, as a 3/3 haste flier for four is no joke. Having to attack each turn (if able) isn’t the biggest cost, as you can always play or landfall this back after combat, and a 3/3 flier probably wants to be swinging anyway. This clearly pushes you into an aggressive mindset, but I’d be happy playing Akoum Firebird even in a control deck.

Akoum Hellkite

Limited: 3.5

At five mana, I’d be completely sold. At six, I’m going to play this but I won’t be as excited. Having to wait until turn seven before getting the first landfall trigger makes this a good finisher, but not a great one. You should clearly be saving your Mountains in a deck with Akoum Firebird, and like other landfall cards, this rewards you for not cracking your Evolving Wilds until late.

Akoum Stonewaker

Limited: 2.5

This does a decent job of filling your 2-drop slot while not being dead late, and you can even use it as a midgame mana sink if you don’t have anything else going on. It’s certainly not the stones, but I’ll play this in most vaguely aggressive decks.

Barrage Tyrant

Limited: 3.5

Barrage Titan is a juggernaut on the battlefield, and the low toughness is mitigated by the ability to remove small blockers from its path. It wants a steady stream of Eldrazi Scions to sacrifice, but in a pinch is willing to toss any devoid creature at your opponent or one of their creatures. I’d play this even if I only had a couple eligible creatures to sacrifice, though the rating is predicated on you having 4+.

Belligerent Whiptail

Limited: 2.5

Assuming you are interested in attacking, this does a fair job. Some turns you will have to keep it back, because it trades down too easily if you haven’t hit your land drop, but that’s more than made up for by the times where your opponent can’t effectively block it until turn six or seven.

Boiling Earth

Limited: 1.0

This is more of a sideboard card than anything else, despite the awaken ability. Cards like this always come in when the opponent has tons of small creatures, and adding a seven-mana mode doesn’t change that. Granted, this is good when you want the effect, it’s just not common enough to want it in game one for you to start it.

Chasm Guide

Limited: 2.0

By itself, Chasm Guide is slightly worse than average. A 3/2 haste for four is passable, but not generally good enough. However, it doesn’t take much before this goes berserk, and if you are triggering haste two or three times a game, it can be incredible. I’m not taking Allies like this too early, as they aren’t good enough when you don’t end up in that deck, but later in the draft their value can skyrocket.

Crumble to Dust

Limited: 0.0

I might be tempted to play this against someone who has three of the same non-basic just to see how much salt I can sow, as I’m sure they would be quite frustrated to lose to that. Trolling aside, this isn’t a viable card in Limited.

Dragonmaster Outcast

Limited: 4.0

Only its vulnerability keeps me from giving this a 4.5, since the power level and efficiency are both outstanding. If your opponent can’t kill this immediately, they basically just lose on the spot, because you now have a 5/5 flying blocker and will be making another one shortly. Dragonmaster is so cheap that you should almost always keep it in your hand until the turn you hit six lands, as it isn’t like you are attacking or blocking with it, and giving your opponent the minimum amount of time to deal with it is preferable. I also don’t mind splashing this card, as it’s single-colored and doesn’t need to show up early to be good. If you face this, you should bring in as many ways to kill 1-toughness creatures as possible.

Firemantle Mage

Limited: 2.0

In an aggressive deck, this can justify itself even without other allies. In a deck full of allies, it provides a body early and a good way to get around blockers late. It’s very similar to Chasm Guide, and your curve will likely determine which one you want more (though it’s usually going to be this, given that it’s a mana cheaper).

Goblin War Paint

Limited: 0.5

I’m not a fan of opening myself up to a 2 for 1, and given that blue has multiple strong common bounce spells, that risk is higher than normal. It’s just too easy to paint a picture of this going wrong, and even when things go perfectly, it isn’t like you got away with something.

Kozilek’s Sentinel

Limited: 2.5

Kozilek’s Sentinel is a very odd card. It’s a 1/4 for two, which aren’t common stats to begin with, and certainly not in red. It is a solid card, and I’d play this in most decks, assuming that you will naturally end up with a few ways of triggering it (if not more). My only explanation for this card is that Kozilek was having trouble with the X-Men, and apparently their power maxes out at three.

Lavastep Raider

Limited: 0.5

A 1/2 doesn’t quite cut it, and even with the activated ability, this is a step behind the average creature. The too-small starting size and expensive cost to make it bigger makes this unplayable.

Makindi Sliderunner

Limited: 2.5

Red is getting a lot of solid cards that want you to be aggressive, and this is just another example. I’d never cut Sliderunner in a beatdown deck, and in fact would actively seek it out. What it doesn’t do is block well, and as such I can’t give it an unqualified high grade. If it were a little more powerful, like Plated Geopede level (which I’m glad it isn’t, by the way), it would get a higher grade despite the aggressive requirement. An above-average aggressive card that isn’t good in control is exactly what the 2.5 grade is for, and that’s why we are seeing a lot of cards getting this grade.

Molten Nursery

Limited: 1.5

In a deck that can trigger this with over half its spells, and ideally multiple times a turn, Molten Nursery can easily shoot up to a 3.0. Most decks won’t look like that, and I’m not ready to gamble on this super early. This is one of the cards that I hope gets there more often than not, as I love build-arounds, so I’m hoping that I’m wrong here. I will say that stacking two is pretty great, so if you pick up one of these late, future copies go up in value.

Nettle Drone

Limited: 3.0

Speaking of aggressive cards that are good enough, Nettle Drone is the perfect example. It is an aggressive card, but it’s strong enough that you can confidently take it early, and will often include it even in decks that aren’t purely beatdown. This trades well on defense, doesn’t have to risk itself in combat if the way isn’t clear, and can often shoot the opponent multiple times a turn. This is the sort of thing that I’m happy trying to build around, as it doesn’t really have a fail case; you would play it even if you could never untap it.

Ondu Champion

Limited: 3.0

There’s nothing wrong with a 4/3 for 2RR, as the last couple formats taught us, and the additional Ally abilities are just gravy. I’d play this whenever I could reasonably cast it (9+ Mountains, ideally), and am even happier when the textbox becomes relevant.

Outnumber

Limited: 3.5

Outnumber is one of the higher-variance cards in the set. I suspect it’s got more upside than downside, and have given it a rating which reflects that. It just seems like it’s not that hard to build a Shock, and Shock is quite good, even a Shock you can’t cast on turn one or two. If you play a 2-drop into a 2-drop + Outnumber, it’s done its job, and later in the game this can easily deal 3 or 4 damage. I’m going to have to play with and against this more to see how often creatures stick around, but my initial impression is that this is a premium removal spell in most decks. I will admit that some decks won’t be able to make use of this, and opposing instant-speed removal makes it risky, but even factoring all of that in, I still think the card is strong.

I’m open to the idea that this is best-case scenario thinking, so I’ll keep an eye on Outnumber and report on my findings in a few weeks.

Processor Assault

Limited: 1.5

This is another card that’s somewhat hard to process, or at least give a definitive rating on. The problem is that Processor Assault is more often going to be unplayable or great than anything in between. When you have 5+ ways to enable it, it’s great, and when you only have one or two, it’s not that close to playable. I suppose if you have 3 good ways and 1 mediocre one, it’s more borderline, but I’d lean towards playing it. Either way, this is a card I’m not taking early and building around, but one I would take once I was already in a deck that can support it.

Radiant Flames

Limited: 3.5

I like how flexible this is. In Constructed, you are often just going to max it out, as decks that play it won’t have a ton of their own creatures. In Limited, there will frequently be a mix of creatures in play, and getting to cast this for 1, 2, or 3, is very powerful. Of course, you do need a third color for this to be great, even if it is still playable at two. My one criticism is that this doesn’t mesh all that well with the aggressive decks red seems to favor, so you may want to pass on this if you are drafting a beatdown deck.

Reckless Cohort

Limited: 1.0

You need to be in a deck that cares about Allies before this pulls its weight, as having to attack each turn (if able) is too big a drawback and a 2/2 for 2 is not enough of a reward. In the Ally deck, this both triggers other Allies and conveniently enough isn’t forced to attack, making it a solid addition.

Retreat to Valakut

Limited: 1.0

Aggressive decks won’t often want to take off a turn to play this, and control decks certainly aren’t interested. I don’t think this does quite enough to warrant inclusion, so I’ll stick with using Scapeshift when I’m planning any travel to Valakut.

Rolling Thunder

Limited: 4.5

When I first saw Rolling Thunder was going to be in this set, I thought it was going to be unbeatable. I then realized that there were going to be a bunch of Eldrazi, so maybe it was just going to be good. After seeing the full set, I’m leaning more towards the first conclusion, though it stops a little short of being completely ridiculous. Enough of the creatures in this set have 1-3 toughness that Rolling Thunder is going to be amazing. It kills a couple creatures in the midgame, lots of creatures in the lategame, and can be used to finish off your opponent in any kind of close game. It also plays nicely in decks that can generate Eldrazi Scions, and even if you have to just use it on their big creature, it’s still a removal spell. Rolling Thunder may not be as absurd as it was in Tempest, but don’t go thinking that this isn’t an awesome early pick.

Serpentine Spike

Limited: 4.0

Serpentine Spike is like a more mana efficient Rolling Thunder with a fixed casting cost, which overall makes it a little worse. It’s still a fantastic card to throw down on seven mana, but needing to hit that seven mana is a real cost.

Shatterskull Recruit

Limited: 2.5

In earth-shattering news, red gets a reasonably-sized creature that’s decent in aggro or control. The Recruit is an acceptable way to fill out the top of your curve, and the evasion ability is going to be relevant in just about every game. The only thing stopping me from picking this up too early is that five-drops have diminishing returns.

Stonefury

Limited: 3.0

Speaking of 5-drops, Stonefury is one I will take early. It kills almost anything you want to kill, and even if it isn’t the most mana-efficient, red doesn’t usually kill big things quite this easily. Red’s five-mana removal spell is a lot better than black’s this time around, as it’s an instant and starts at 5 damage instead of maxing out there.

Sure Strike

Limited: 2.0

Sure, why not? This is a cheap combat trick that will win you most combats, and if your deck doesn’t have any combat tricks, this certainly fills that role. I’m not usually looking for tricks very aggressively, since you only want a couple at most, but Sure Strike is better than what red normally gets.

Touch of the Void

Limited: 3.0

I guess given that Stonefury is an instant, it would be a touch greedy to hope this would be too. This will still play well, and kill enough of the creatures you care about. It also enables processors, though you certainly don’t need to be doing any of that to want this in your deck.

Tunneling Geopede

Limited: 2.5

I’ve met Plated Geopede, and this is certainly no replacement. It’s still good enough to run in an aggro deck, though it’s certainly worse than Nettle Drone. The extra toughness doesn’t make up for how much less frequently it triggers, even if looks very similar.

Turn Against

Limited: 3.5

Against an opponent who isn’t playing around this, it’s easily a 4.0. Against one who is, it can drop to much lower than that. The ideal use of this is to grab a creature that can trade for one of their other attackers, and pick up a nice two for one. If your opponent is careful enough to not attack into five open mana, you may end up having to settle for less, but the blowout potential plus the ease of getting a 1 for 1 makes this a very strong card. I could see upgrading this rating to start with, but I do think as people get more used to playing against this, it will settle closer to just being good instead of absurd.

Valakut Invoker

Limited: 2.0

I like cards that give me value in the lategame, though a 2/3 for 3 is much worse than a 2/2 for 2. Playing this is paying a cost, and if you don’t end up getting to eight, it’s all for naught.

Valakut Predator

Limited: 3.0

Commons like this really push red’s aggressive feel. Valakut Predator is a substantial threat if your plan is to get in there every turn, and very mediocre if you are planning on blocking. I wouldn’t mind taking this early, given its power level, and am fine with slightly committing to being aggressive when I do.

Vestige of Emrakul

Limited: 3.0

Good stats, a good ability, and colorless to boot. This is even easy to cast, and overall is the textbook definition of an always-play.

Vile Aggregate

Limited: 3.5

Even though this is a miss in some decks, it will be very good in others. It’s a 1/5 by itself, and it isn’t that hard to get it to a 3/5 by the time you want to attack. It works with processors, and the upside is high enough that I’m happy taking it early. Five toughness is just so much, and the potential to hit 4-5 power means that this has a very high aggregate power when you look at all the different cases.

Volcanic Upheaval

Limited: 0.5

Awaken makes this a sideboard card rather than a never-play, but it’s still not something I’m going to prioritize. Keep in mind that non-targeting spells with Awaken can be countered if you kill the land in response, and this being an instant makes that very possible.

Zada, Hedron Grinder

Limited: 2.0

In the right deck, Zada can be very threatening. She makes any pump spell outrageous, and is definitely a reason to run 3-4 pump spells even when you’d normally only want a couple. She isn’t worth playing if you don’t have any tricks, but is worth building around if you have the opportunity.

Top 5 Red Commons

5. Vestige of Emrakul
4. Touch of the Void
3. Stonefury
2. Nettle Drone
1. Outnumber

Red also got a lot of quality commons. Even if Outnumber ends up being more towards the middle of the pack, there are still three solid removal spells and a bunch of good creatures available (with Ondu Champion barely missing the cut). I wouldn’t be surprised if Nettle Drone ended up being the most powerful common, especially given how brutal it is if you get two in play, but all of the removal spells seem quite good as well. Red definitely has an aggressive theme, though good removal and good creatures points to it playing midrange or control reasonably well if needed.

LSV

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